Long before he became a Pacer, back when he played for the Colts in fact, T.J. McConnell didn't look the part. Didn't look like a high school basketball player and certainly didn't look like a future college player, especially one for a major program.
An NBA player? Nobody was daring even to fantasize about that, him included.
Heading into his sophomore season at Chartiers Valley High School in Pittsburgh and standing all of 5-foot-8 and 125 pounds, he looked more like one of those cute kids from the grade school who plays at halftime of the varsity games. But he had in fact played in the varsity games as a freshman, averaging 10 points for a team coached by his father while displaying talent and maturity beyond his years, not to mention his physique.
Duquesne University coach Ron Everhart had seen enough in those games, as well as in offseason competition, to offer a scholarship. But when McConnell accepted in October of 2007, the headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette acknowledged the unexpected nature of the story: "No joke, Dukes coach wants McConnell."
One Duquesne fan, however, wasn't satisfied with merely being surprised. He fired off an e-mail to Everhart and wrote, "I didn't realize we were recruiting water boys." Everhart later showed the insulting missive to McConnell and his father, Tim, when they visited his office.
"We walked out of there and T.J. said, 'I'll show them who the water boy is!'" Tim McConnell recalls. "He uses that for motivation to this day."
Water boy. Paper boy. Ball boy.
Call him whatever you want, T.J. McConnell has heard it all and at every level. He says it once bothered him and therefore motivated him, but he's grown numb to it by now. How many times can you hear a generic insult from a stranger and still feel a reaction? Now that he's a fifth-year NBA veteran and a valued rotation player with the Pacers, hecklers only sound foolish. Fans pay their money, they can say what they want, he believes as long as they don't cross lines of decency.
Besides, McConnell was raised to have thick skin. His father passed on everything he could as a parent, coach, and genetic contributor to his kids' basketball careers, and was setting an example long before they were born.
Tim McConnell played at Waynesburg (Pa.) College, a 5-foot-7 1/2 point guard who was in constant motion but never wasted any of it backing down from someone. He tells the story of playing in a summer league game against a Penn State defensive lineman, Greg Gattuso, who is now the head coach at Albany College.
"One time we were winning the game and I started dribbling around to run the clock. He started chasing me, and when he finally caught me, he wanted to put me through the fence.
"We'll talk now, and he'll say, 'Man, you used to drive me crazy the way you hustled.' But I knew if I wanted to play..."
If he wanted to play, he was going to have to outwork the competition. He bred his children to attack the game the same way.
T.J. is the oldest. A younger brother, Matty, completed his career at Robert Morris last season and now works for Wilson-McGinley, a beverage distributor in Pittsburgh, and coaches part-time for a Catholic high school in the area. Megan, the youngest, is a senior for the girls' team at Chartiers Valley. Tim coached it to a 30-0 record and state championship last season and hopes to repeat this time around. She's a hustling pass-first point guard who reminds everyone of T.J. and has accepted Duquesne's scholarship offer, just as he once did.
"Me and my sister are crazy out there," T.J. says.
The fundamental reason the McConnells have gone as far as they have in their respective basketball careers is their crazy fighting spirit, the kind that wins over fans and makes opponents want to put them through a fence. For T.J. that's meant a no-joke NBA career that landed him in Indianapolis last summer after four seasons in Philadelphia.
He wasn't guaranteed a spot in the playing rotation when he signed with the Pacers, but Nate McMillan hasn't been able to keep him out of it. He's played at least 11 minutes in every game except the two he sat out with a strained groin. Although he hasn't averaged as many minutes as with the Sixers, he's arguably playing better than ever based on the advanced analytics of efficiency and win shares.
At the very least he's displaying the qualities that got him to this point. He approaches every practice as if it's Game 7, he keeps the offense humming when he's playing in games and he's the loudest cheerleader on the bench when he's not.
"He's got a great spirit about himself," McMillan says. "He doesn't take himself too seriously in the game. He's really competitive in practice, but he's a jokester. He keeps it loose. I call a guy like that 'Sunshine.' You want to be with him, whether it's in practice or pickup games, because of the way he plays."
That style of play has been influential since the day T.J. began practicing with the Pacers over the summer, especially to younger players such as Aaron Holiday.
"He makes it competitive in practice," McMillan says. "He was picking up fullcourt in August and September, and Aaron picked up on it and started doing it."
Competitive spirits sometimes collide, though, and things have to be talked out. Eventually. Tim McConnell laughs as he recalls the times he and T.J. didn't speak to one another, particularly the time their standoff lasted for three, four, maybe five days.
Seems Chartiers Valley was in a state playoff game and T.J. was playing well. But he picked up a third foul in the first half and had to go to the bench. The opponent cut the lead to about eight points, so Tim turns to his son and screams, "This is your fault because you're not in the game! I told you not to foul!"
T.J. was then returned to the game with orders not to commit another foul.
"He's in there, he's tearing it up, they can't stop him," Tim McConnell recalls. "One time he stole it and dunked it. It wasn't a great dunk, but he dunked it. And he looked and me and yelled, "How do you like that!?"
The coach responded as only a father could.
"You are grounded tonight!" he shouted.
He meant it, too. After they returned home after the game, T.J. said he was going out with friends. Tim said no, you're grounded. T.J. was furious and Tim's wife, Shelly, tried to reason with him, telling him he wouldn't — couldn't — have grounded any of his other players. Tim realized she was probably right, but he had taken his stand and couldn't — wouldn't — back down.
"He was so mad at me," Tim says.
Life went on for a few days. T.J. did whatever coach/dad said to do in practice, but that didn't mean they had to speak to one another. Finally, Mom intervened and demanded a truce.
Today, the similarity of their personalities is more of a bonding agent than a source of conflict. That's obvious from their mutual sense of humor. Tim McConnell, for example, had a request for the next time T.J. was to be interviewed.
"Say, 'Hey, I heard your nickname's the water boy!'" he says. "Tell him I told you to say that."
T.J., when told, "I was talking to your father..." interrupted with, "Sorry to hear that."
T.J. McConnell during his freshman (left) and senior (right) seasons at Chartiers Valley High School (Photo Credit: Tim McConnell)
Their chemistry has allowed both to flourish. The Chartiers Valley Colts finished 29-2 and won their conference championship in T.J.' senior season. He averaged 34.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 9.1 assists and was voted first-team all-state and the Associated Press 3A Player of the Year.
By then Everhart was looking prescient for making that early scholarship offer, and coaches from more prestigious programs had come calling to try to woo T.J. away from Duquesne. He wasn't swayed, however, and enrolled in the college just 10 miles from his home.
He started all but two games as a freshman and was voted the Atlantic 10's Freshman of the Year. He averaged 11.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists the following season and finished third in the country in steals at 2.8. For that he was voted third-team all-conference and to the all-defensive team.
And then came a fateful moment that changed the direction of his life.
The NCAA tournament made a rare stop in Pittsburgh at the conclusion of McConnel's sophomore season in 2012, placing second- and third-round games at the Consol Energy Center. Duquesne was the host school. T.J., who was coming off a 16-15 season that ended with a first-round loss in the conference tournament, attended the games with his father and became fixated on Ohio State's point guard.
Aaron Craft was a 6-foot-2 sophomore, just like him, and played like him as well. Craft harassed ballhandlers, penetrated like a Kamikaze pilot and dove on the floor for every loose ball. He was productive, too, contributing 17 points, 10 assists, and three steals to the Buckeyes' victory over Loyola of Maryland in the first session and then 11 points, six steals, and five assists in the victory over Gonzaga that followed.
T.J. couldn't help but wonder. He eventually turned to his father, who was sitting behind him, and said, "I think I want to transfer."
Tim McConnell was stunned.
"What?! You're having a great career," he said.
"I want to play at a higher level," T.J. said.
It was a brash statement for a third-team all-conference sophomore, but the same pride and stubbornness that results in a father and son not talking to one another for a few days can also make a kid believe he's capable of more than people think. T.J. was willing to bet on himself and take the challenge of playing at a program that made annual trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Not just take the challenge, initiate the challenge.
"I thought, I only get one shot at this," T.J. recalls. "I wanted to play on the biggest stage and compete for national championships. The NCAA Tournament fueled it."
The first step was the most difficult. He had to break the news to Everhart, the coach who had believed in him before anyone else. McConnell dreaded the trip to his coach's office.
"It was really hard," he says. "It was nothing to do with him. He was a great coach and a great person, great father, great husband...all the things you can be, he was great. That was the hardest part.
"But looking back at it, it was one of the best decisions I've made, taking a chance on myself."
The process began with notifying the NCAA and entering his name in the transfer portal. Despite his relatively low profile at Duquesne, McConnell had built enough of a reputation for himself that he drew immediate interest from some major programs.
Purdue, for one. Greg Gary had been an assistant at Duquesne during McConnell's freshman season before joining Matt Painter's staff. The two talked on the telephone a few times and Painter talked with McConnell as well. A visit was discussed.
McConnell visited Arizona and Virginia first, however, and was so enamored with both places he cancelled all other recruitments.
"I was really mad at him," recalls Gary, now in his first season as the head coach at Mercer. "We had a real good relationship and I thought we had a good shot at him. I got mad and said, 'I hope we play you and we kick your ass.'"
Tim McConnell was pulling for Virginia because it was within driving distance of his home, but T.J. chose Arizona. It just felt right. Arizona coach Sean Miller was a native of the Pittsburgh area and had been a standout point guard at the University of Pittsburgh. He also had seen McConnell play first-hand when Arizona and Duquesne met in the season-opener of McConnell's sophomore season and Duquesne had played two games each season against conference opponent Dayton, coached by Sean's brother, Archie, now the head coach at Indiana.
So, Miller had plenty of background material to work with, and had a roster that appeared in need of a starting point guard by the time T.J. became eligible after sitting out a season.
McConnell's career blossomed at Arizona. He started every game and helped the Wildcats to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament both of his seasons. He played with future NBA first-round draft picks Solomon Hill, Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Stanley Johnson and against several others. McConnell's game is such that he plays better with elite talent because of his playmaking skills and mindset, and it showed. The third-team all=conference selection at Duquesne was voted first-team all-conference as a senior at Arizona, and to the conference's all-defensive team both seasons.
He didn't lose his mojo, either.
Miller tells the story of a game at UTEP in December of McConnell's senior season. The Miners have a fan infamous for sitting behind the visiting team's bench and shouting insults at the visiting team that often cross lines. He was letting McConnell have it early in the game and continued during a timeout. Miler noticed McConnell seemed a little distracted as he talked with him, obviously hearing the heckling fan.
As the timeout ended, McConnell turned and got in the last word.
"He squirted this guy right in the chest with green Gatorade," Miller says. "The guy went nuts. I didn't see it happen, so I was totally confused. It was a big scene.
"I only tell you that because he's a unique competitor. He's lovable as a teammate because he plays so hard. It's not that he's the underdog, it's more his style that you love and embrace. He does it on defense and offense. He's totally unselfish and in today's world there aren't many guys like that."
T.J.'s self-evaluation is much simpler: "I try to make the right play and make others around me better."
Photo Credit: Tim McConnell
That didn't make him an NBA prospect, though.
NBA scouts make regular pilgrimages to Arizona to scout for prospects and told Miller that McConnell was not on their radar. Miller asked what it was about McConnell's game didn't translate, and why his intangibles didn't count for much.
"He had these surreal instincts," Miller says. "He can guard some of the best athletes in the world and be fine and he has a feel for the game, the ability to deliver the ball at the right time, that's a gift."
McConnell wasn't invited to the NBA's pre-draft combine in Chicago following his senior season, but his agent, Chris Emmons, worked out an arrangement that McConnell would fly to Chicago and make himself available to compete if anyone cancelled or was injured. An opening did come up, as it often does, and McConnell played well enough to earn invitations to pre-draft workouts. He might have set a record that summer, participating in more than 20. The 18th was with the Pacers. He thought he played well, but the main point of that workout from the Pacers' perspective was to take a close look at Myles Turner and Frank Kaminsky in head-to-head competition.
McConnell went undrafted. He didn't watch the first round. "There was a negative chance that was going to happen," he says. He had friends over to watch the second round, just in case, but that didn't happen, either. But lo and behold, Philadelphia was knee-deep in The Process, a long-term plan to gain traction by sacrificing victories for a few years to land high draft picks. That created openings for players such as McConnell, who beat out half-a-dozen other point guard for a spot on the Sixers' roster.
"The Process gave me the chance to get my foot in the door in the NBA," he says. "If I was going to a team that wasn't going through a process like that, I'm not sure I would be here."
Still, it seemed impossible. McConnell hadn't even dreamed of playing in the NBA as a kid. He loved Vince Carter's game, but college basketball was as high as he dared project himself. Very few players from Pittsburgh had made it to the NBA, certainly none as physically uninspiring as him. He was prideful and ambitious and confident, sure, but also realistic.
Tim McConnell hadn't allowed himself to believe it, either. He hadn't even been sure of his son's ability to play Division I college ball. But the Sixers kept making cuts through the preseason, gradually paring the roster, and T.J. kept surviving. On the afternoon the final reduction was to be made, Tim's high school team had practice. He doesn't let his players take cell phones into the gymnasium during practice, but he kept his in a pocket that day. Friends who were following the tweets of newspaper reporters kept texting him to give updates on which players had been released, one at a time.
Finally, at 3:15, he got a call from his son.
"Your son's a pro," T.J. said.
Tim started crying. Even today, this far into T.J.'s career, he gets choked up recalling the moment.
"It was unbelievable," he says.
It still seems that way sometimes. Tim and Shelly McConnell and other family members and friends get to T.J.'s games as often as possible. They've been to Indianapolis for a game this season and they were in Philadelphia last Saturday for the Pacers' game there. Watching his son in games, whether in person or on television, Tim sometimes feels the urge to pinch himself.
"I keep telling people, 'I'm dreaming, don't wake me up.'"
You know who's not so surprised? Coaches such as Miller and Gary, who saw McConnell first-hand every day in practice and games.
Two years after Gary angrily responded to McConnell's refusal to even visit Purdue, he saw him play in Maui in a holiday tournament. Purdue was there, too, and Gary was scouting Arizona in case the two teams met.
"I'm watching Arizona going, I should have kept my mouth shut," Gary recalls.
Purdue and Arizona didn't collide in that tournament, so Gary was off the hook. But he's kept a close eye on him ever since.
"I'm going to tell you this," he says. "It's not surprising me at all the success he's having. He was one of the most competitive kids I've ever been around. Just had a fight to him. It didn't matter who he was playing against, he thought he was better. He's got that competitiveness and he's deceptively athletic and he's extremely smart.
"He wanted to kick your ass in practice, too. And he would quietly talk about it. He was always sneaky with it. He talks a lot of trash, but you can't catch it unless you're in practice or you're on the court with him."
The game hasn't changed for the player once dismissed as a mascot, except for this: he and his dad talk all the time.
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